Three Major Time Periods of Ancient Egypt
For millennia, the culture, belief systems, and architecture of ancient Egypt have intrigued people all over the world. Ancient Egypt had one of the mightiest and most advanced cities and civilizations on earth. These advancements and progress took a period of about 3,000 years to occur. The period can be broken down into three major periods. Thus, spanning three major kingdoms (Old, Middle, and New), the story of ancient Egypt and their pharaohs is as old as time in itself. How and where did it all begin for the ancient Egyptians? Furthermore, when did ancient Egypt end?
The article below answers these and many more other questions by presenting the most interesting facts about the three main periods in ancient Egypt:
A Brief look at the timeline of Ancient Egypt
Historians generally divide ancient Egypt into three major periods. These periods are the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – c. 2134 B.C.E); the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – c. 1640 B.C.E); and the New Kingdom (c. 1552 – c. 1070 B.C.E). The period before the Old Kingdom has often been referred to as the Pre-dynastic and the Early Dynastic eras of Egypt. In that vein, the period after the New Kingdom is often referred to as the Late Periods and the Greek and Roman eras.
And in between these periods are what historians and Egyptologists like to term as the Intermediate periods or Intermediate kingdoms. Those gaps were often plagued by series of instability, economic and social rife and the general decline of Egypt. They were more or less like the dark ages of the ancient Egyptians.
In total, the three main periods in Egyptian history had about 30 major dynasties. What happened was that a dynasty maintained a strong grip on the kingdom for a considerable number of years. Then when it was all exhausted, as a result of a coup d’état or an absence of an heir, a new dynasty took its place. Every dynasty came with a slightly different set of principles and belief system.
Pre-dynastic/ Prehistoric period of Ancient Egypt (before 3100 B.C.E)
The earliest dynasties in Egypt started on the Nile around about 5,000 BCE. Ancient Egypt back then was not united. It had two separate kingdoms: Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. The region had a sizable amount of vegetation and a vast population of waterfowls. The settlers on the Nile would have engaged in hunting, agriculture and other forms of animal husbandry. They were also good at making pottery, as many archeological remains seem to point out.
The most advanced and largest settlers on the Nile during the pre-dynastic period certainly had to be the Badarian culture. The Badarians were located in Upper Egypt. Similarly, cultures such as the Naqada, the Amratian, the Gerzeh, and the Semainean all engaged in petty trading with settlers in present-day Ethiopia.
After about 1,000 years, the Naqadas became the dominant culture. They had powerful leaders who effectively supervised farming activities. Their first capital was Nekhen. From there, they regulated the affairs of the Nile valley. After some time, the Naqadas in Lower Egypt moved the capital from Nekhen to Abydos.
The Naqadas were one of the earliest people to use written symbols. These symbols formed the bases of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Additionally, the trade volumes increased with surrounding communities such as the Nubians and cities in the Near East.
Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100 – c. 2686 B.C.E)
The evolution of the Naqada culture introduced the Early Dynastic era, which stretched for about four centuries. This era had one of the greatest rulers of ancient Egypt called Menes (Meni). According to Manetho (a 3rd-century B.C.E historian and priest), Menes was the one that unified Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. It is believed that this unification took place around 3100 B.C.E.
Make no mistake, the unification did not happen in a single year or a decade; it took several tens of years to occur. Another account of this unification states that Menes was not a real person, but instead, it was king Narmer that initiated the unification process.
Regardless of the differences in names, what we know is that the ruler of the unified ancient Egypt established a solid power base in Lower Egypt. The place was called Memphis. From this administrative capital, subsequent rulers in the Early Dynastic Era and the Old Kingdom managed the extremely fertile lands; the trading routes; and the construction of temples.
The Old Kingdom Period (c. 2686 – c. 2134 B.C.E)
The pharaohs/rulers of the Early Dynastic period did not have a very strong, central hub of command. However, this changed during the Old Kingdom. The rulers from the Old Kingdom set up a centralized government structure often in a designated capital city. From there, their instructions were carried out by viziers, scribes, priests and town officials across all of Egypt. Pharaohs in the Old Kingdom encouraged research and growth in arts, science, math, and crafts.
Notwithstanding the sporadic skirmishes between nobles and pharaohs, the Old Kingdom flourished and made major technological advances. Agricultural produce also increased year in year out. This allowed the pharaohs to collect taxes to finance several projects across the kingdom. The viziers ensured that farmlands were properly irrigated. They devoted enough resources to keeping the people harmonized through religion. The justice system was fairly reasonable as well.
It was during this period that majority of the most famous Egyptian Pyramids we see today were constructed. The pharaohs of Egypt in the Old Kingdom had unbridled access to a wide array of resources. As a result, they were able to build absolutely magnificent and imposing structures in the Kingdom.
However, the Old Kingdom came crashing down due to its over-centralized administrative structure. The educated scribes, priests and officials started fighting among themselves. The economy was in shambles due to over ambitious construction projects. Bureaucratic procedures started to take a toll on virtually every aspect of the Egyptian society. Soon, the bureaucrats and regional governors (nomarchs) stopped taking instructions from the pharaohs. Egyptians were ushered into what historians like to term as the First Intermediate Period.
First Intermediate Period (First Dark Ages in Ancient Egypt)
In addition to the various warring factions in the Old Kingdom, ancient Egyptians had to grapple with very prolonged periods of drought in the latter parts of the 22nd century BCE. There were constant food shortages, starvation, and civil unrest. The entire kingdom was nudged deep into a century-and-half years of complete chaos and lawlessness. Historians estimate that the First Intermediate Period lasted from around 2130 BCE to about 2000 BCE.
The unrest created a power vacuum for local leaders or warlords to rise up to the occasion. Some of them banded together to form strong power bases. They worked to create livable and prosperous places for their communities. As time progressed, their economic situation got better.
One particular tribe that excelled very well during the intermediate period was the Herakleopolis of Lower Egypt. In the upper side of Egypt, the Thebes-based Intef family had also risen up and was in complete control of Upper Egypt.
The rise of these two tribes brought them into a confrontation with one another. In the end, the Herakleopolis tribe came out victors. The leader of Herekleopolis, Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II, then went on to unite the two regions. Nebhepere and his descendants gave birth to a new period called the Middle Kingdom.
2. The Middle Kingdom Period
All the harm and chaos that fell upon the ancient Egyptians during the First Intermediate Period was undone by pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom. Culture and arts once again flourished. Ancient Egypt was again thriving and steadily managed by rulers such as Mentuhotep II and Amenemhat I.
Mentuhotep II and his court were headquartered in Thebes, the kingdom’s capital. However, the 12th Dynasty of Egypt, under Amenemhat I, moved the capital from Thebes to Itjtawy, Faiyum. Amenemhat was instrumental in reclaiming lost lands in Nubia. Along with those territories came vast minerals.
Those conditions helped kicked start a renaissance period that lasted from 2040 BCE to 1640 BCE. The Middle Kingdom’s demise came at the hands of the Canaanite settlers during the reign of Amenemhat III. History has it that Amenemhat III granted the Canaanites from the Near East parcels of land to settle on. At first, the Canaanites served as laborers in the mining and construction areas in Egypt. However, they rose up against their Egyptian masters and took charge of the kingdom. These Canaanites came to be known as the Hyksos.
Hyksos Reign and the Second Intermediate Period
The Middle Kingdom pharaohs and rulers entered a lethargic period and they struggled to hold on to power while the Hyksos, Delta-dwelling settlers from the Near East, were on a meteoric rise. Hyksos settlers had strategically placed themselves in key sectors of the kingdom. Eventually, the Hyksos replaced the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom. Under Hyksos’ rule, Avaris became the new capital of ancient Egypt.
As they were considered foreign invaders, the Hyksos made sure that they did not antagonize the Egyptians by imposing foreign beliefs and culture on them.
Additionally, the Hyksos exposed the Egyptians to some awesome technology and warfare techniques. The composite bow and horse-drawn chariot were just some of the things that the ancient Egyptians benefited from the Hyksos.
After about a century of Hyksos rule, the rulers of Thebes had gained enough resources and men to stand toe to toe against the Hyksos. The battle ensued for several decades before several generations of Thebian rulers were able to drive the Hyksos out of Egypt completely.
Ahmose I used the victory over Hyksos to build a very strong Egyptian army. He also embarked on several military campaigns in the surrounding regions and expanded Egypt’s territory in the Near East.
The Second Intermediate Period and Hyksos’ rule proved very beneficial, militarily especially, to Egypt. A lot of military technology was passed on to the Egyptians during their reign. And the advances that Ahmose I had was in part due to this.
3. The New Kingdom Period
The pharaohs in the New Kingdom were much more organized than their predecessors. They excelled in almost every aspect of governance. Their reign lasted for about five centuries – from around 1552 B.C.E to 1010 B.C.E. Some of the most famous of rulers of the New Kingdom were Tuthmosis I, Hatshepsut and Ramesses II.
It was during this period that the Egyptian rulers obtained the title Pharaoh. This title means “great house”. And all across ancient Egypt, the people saw the pharaohs as gods in human forms. They revered them and had several cult-like places and ceremonies to venerate their pharaohs.
The New Kingdom’s brave female ruler in the person of Hatshepsut implemented several construction projects across Egypt. Trade during her rule also increased. As a result of all these, Egypt grew rapidly, both economically and in size. Similarly, pharaohs Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great) and Tuthmosis I constructed a plethora of beautiful and gargantuan statues, temples and obelisks.
The New Kingdom also had an unpopular pharaoh called Akhenaten (or Pharaoh Amenhotep IV). One of his first radical moves was to introduce an unfamiliar and unpleasant monotheistic faith to Egypt. He forced Egypt to accept the sun god Aten as the new supreme god. According to some ancient historians, it is possible Akhenaten made it an an offense to worship other Egyptian gods or goddesses other than the sun god Aten. After the pharaoh’s death, Egyptians reverted to their old gods and cultural beliefs.
The glorious progress and advances made during the New Kingdom era made Egypt an attractive target for foreign invasions, particularly from the Assyrians. The administration of the kingdom was also plagued with corruption. With the passage of time, the New Kingdom got plunged into civil unrest. This marked the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period.
Third Intermediate Period (1070 – 650 B.C.E)
This period started about the time that Ramesses XI died in 1070 B.C.E. While Thebes’ high priests controlled the South (Upper Egypt), the Smendes in the North were in charge of Lower Egypt. The Libyans were the third group of power players; they had taken control of the delta region around the Nile.
These three sides all engaged in a bloody war to secure total control of Egypt. The Assyrians were also a constant menace to the Egyptians. The Assyrians ended up clearing the Kushites out of Egypt. They successfully wrestled control of Egypt from the rulers of Thebes and Memphis.
Late Period in Ancient Egypt
In place of the rulers of Thebes and Memphis, the Assyrians used proxy families and clans in Egypt to manage the affairs of the kingdom. These clans formed the 26th Dynasty. Historians call them the Saite kings. The capital city of Egypt during the reign of the Saite kings was Sais.
However, about three decades later, a Saite king by name Psamtik I solicited the help of Greece to get rid of the Assyrians in Egypt. This marked the beginning of Greece’s presence in Egypt. They were even offered a place to settle in.
Around the turn of the 6th-century B.C.E, the Persians attacked Egypt. Pharaoh Psamatik III lost his crown to the Persian king Cambyses II at the battle of Pelusium. From Iran, the Persian king maintained a very strong grip on Egypt. Egypt, along with Cyprus and Phoenicia, became part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
The beginning of the 5th century saw Egyptians briefly regain control of their kingdom. But after some few native Egyptian kings, the Persians came back and ushered in the 31st Dynasty in 343 B.C.E. This, however, did not last for too long. In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great stormed into Egypt, unchallenged, and drove away the Persians.
The Ptolemaic Era (332 – 30 B.C.E)
When the Macedon conqueror, Alexander the Great, entered Egypt, he was met with very little opposition. Many Egyptians lined up the streets to thank him for liberating them from the Persians.
The administration that controlled the affairs of Egypt became known as the Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty. A new capital city was situated along the Mediterranean coast. The Ptolemies called it Alexandria.
The Ptolemies helped to develop Alexandria into a commercial and scientific hub of the region. They made sure not to force their Hellenistic beliefs and culture on the Egyptians. Learning and scientific research was encouraged using mediums such as the magnificent Library of Alexandria. Trade and business increased in folds because a business-friendly environment was created in Alexandria. There was the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria that helped merchant ships dock at the city’s port.
All of these was done by the Ptolemies in order to obtain the trust of the Egyptians. They even spent resources on building new temples for the worship of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Simply put, the Ptolemaic Dynasty did everything to assimilate into the Egyptian culture. Along the way, Hellenistic culture and Egyptian culture got merged together.
However, after some number of years, a very powerful Egyptian family rebelled against the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Civil unrest ensued after Ptolemy IV’s death.
The growing Roman Empire saw this as an opportunity to expand its presence in Egypt. Therefore, on the pretext of securing their assets and trade in Egypt, Rome sent her army into Egypt. The year 30 B.C.E. marked the beginning of Rome’s rule in Egypt.
The Roman Period (332 B.C.E. to 641 C.E.)
Rome’s Octavian (Emperor Augustus) vanquished the armies of Marc Antony and Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII in the Battle of Actium.
Rome went on to rule Egypt from 30 B.C.E. to 641 C.E. They did this by having perfect control of the kingdom. Rebellions were not allowed to spill over; taxes were imposed; and a less centralized administrative structure was adopted. Compared to the Greeks, the Romans were far more oppressive. Only a few Egyptian cultural practices were allowed to remain.
In the first century C.E, Christianity sipped into Egypt. Emperor Theodosius banned pagan worship and a host of other Egyptian practices. This took a toll on the Egyptians. Gradually, the native Egyptian culture got phased out. It even got to a point where only a small fraction of the population knew how to read and write the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The number of Egyptian priests and priestesses of the temples reduced. Rome converted Egyptian temples into churches.
The Modern Era and the Path to Independence
After the split of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Egypt went the way of the Eastern Empire. Constantinople’s control of Egypt lasted for about two centuries. After that, Egypt was passed back and forth between the Sassanid Persians (618-629 C.E.) and Rome.
Finally, and in 639, the Muslim Rashidun army ended centuries of Rome’s rule in Egypt. A number of Arab forces and cities went on to rule Egypt for several centuries until the modern capital, Cairo, was founded. Then in 1882, the British Empire brought Egypt under its control and stayed there until 1952 when Egypt declared independence.